Monday, April 8, 2013

The Sound of Nostalgia

Sometimes on Listening Mondays we listen to an entire piece and I only say a little about it. Other times, we hone in on just a few small details, rather than a broad concept, or try to trace one from the other. At times, it is the broad sweep of the piece, perhaps its overall scheme that interests us.

Today's installment is about a single chord.

Let's listen first to Robert Schumann's Scenes from Childhood, a collection of 13 short pieces. Today I'm going to play for you the first piece, sometimes translated as "of strange lands and people."


It's a lovely piece; kind of wispy, perhaps, maybe sentimental. I don't know how well it captures childhood--it may have a bit too much of the adult-trying-to-remember-what-it-was-like quality, or rather, that latterday romanticized view we have of those glory days when we were small after the fact. Well, this is music from the Romantic Period, after all!

But how you hear, and what you hear, depends quite a bit on a very hard to define but powerful thing: the psychological, or emotional impact it makes on you. And for me, one powerful ingredient in that is that second chord.

Schumann's melody is very expressive; particularly that upward leap between the first two notes.


But that isn't all of it. If Schumann had had all of the imagination of the average conservatory student in first year theory, he probably would have stuck a good old G major chord under that second melody note. It is, after all, a G, and the most obvious thing to do is to harmonize a G with a G chord.


But how wrong would that be! Gone is the tug at the heart, the happysad pull of a memory you can't get back but remember with fondness, and a bit of pain because you are now and forever outside of it. And he does this all with one diminished chord.


Diminished chords were rather popular during the 19th century. The tension they created, and the ambiguous nature of their component parts (you can make them go in several directions quite easily) made them almost the musical discovery of the time. Later on these ineffable harmonies were vulgarized and made to provide cheap melodrama whenever the heroine got tied to the train tracks in silent movies. Someone is always trying to overload the senses the easiest way possible.

But Schumann isn't trying to play with our pulse. Instead, with a simple musical brushstroke, he reminds us at once of a moment of pleasant reminiscence and of its attendant pain. You can't go back; but you can remember.

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